Tyranny of the majority in France

Forcing citizens to wear or not wear face veils — which is worse?

Legislation banning face veils from public, passed by the lower house of the French Parliament, is a sadly misguided attempt to maintain national identity. In reality, it promotes only xenophobia and religious discrimination.

If the bill passes the senate as well as a mandatory constitutional review, it will impose fines of up to 150 euros (about 200 dollars) for women wearing the burqa or niqab, traditional garments in some Muslim cultures, in public. Men forcing their wives to wear the controversial garments would be subject to fines of up to 30,000 euros plus jail time.

Perhaps the most insulting part of the entire affair has been the deliberately misguiding and dishonest reasons put forth by supporters of the ban. It is supposed to preserve laïcité, a concept roughly equivalent to that of a secular society. But under what absurd definition of secular government is it acceptable to regulate religious expression, indeed that of a specific religion? Yes, the bill does not single out the Islamic face veil. But if it isn’t clearly targeted at the estimated 2000 women who wear the full Islamic veil in public, then why the constant harping of politicians like André Gerin, who described the burqa as a “moving prison?” Secularism ought to be about avoiding interference in religious affairs unless it is absolutely necessary. Banning religious clothing because of a blind appeal to laïcité is as mind-bogglingly asinine as supporting McCarthyism with The Communist Manifesto.

The justifications only get worse. French President Nicholas Sarkozy calls the burqa “a sign of enslavement and debasement.” Immigration minister Éric Besson, presumably feeling that his colleagues had not been quite melodramatic enough, described it as “a walking coffin.” If Mr. Sarkozy and his parliament are so concerned with systemic religious discrimination, then surely they must have been mortified by a recent declaration, issued by the Vatican, equating the ordination of women with sexual abuse (the document held that both were in the same category of “grave offenses”). And yet, not a peep. They are outraged, outraged I say, at the sexist symbolism of the headscarf. But there are no calls to ban the miniskirt, Hooters, or Playboy. The message is loud and clear: sexism has nothing to do with their political support.

Even assuming that it is somehow right to focus in on the Islamic veil and not any number of other sexist outfits, religious practices, ad campaigns, and so on, this hardly gives the government the authority to legislate individual expression to such an extent. If a woman chooses to wear an article of clothing, the state has no right to prohibit her from doing so. If someone has coerced her into wearing something degrading, then it is an entirely different issue. The section of the bill establishing heavy fines and jail time for this abuse are welcome. But forcing women to wear something is just as immoral as forcing them not to.

If there is an argument in favor of banning the burqa, it is in public safety. It is, after all, not unreasonable to require someone’s face to be visible on a photo id, or when entering a bank. It might even be appropriate for a woman wearing clothing obscuring her identity to forfeit the presumption of innocence in certain cases. But it is much more difficult to argue that a lone woman walking down the street causes public harm by covering her face. And appeals to public safety are few and far between in the speeches of politicians who so vociferously promote their cause.

The sad truth is that none of these reasons have anything to do with why this little violation of human rights is being pushed through the legislature. The idea is simply popular: one poll indicates that 57 percent of the French public supports the idea of a ban, with 37 percent opposed. It is the tyranny of the majority at its finest: a legislature representing over 60 million people targeting a group numbering in the thousands for short-term political gain.

Mark Wittels is a member of the Class of 2013.